The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 6 – The Master Minds

Emma Peel with bow and arrow

The Master Minds was episode six in series four in transmission terms, but only the second episode that Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee had made together. Hence the not-quite-thereness of their relationship – notice throughout how rarely Rigg actually looks at Steed. By series five the two of them were locked in almost permanent ocular combat.


It’s relevant because this is a classic Rigg-era Avengers episode – it’s all about boffins and mind control – trailing clouds of the Cathy Gale era, when relations between Steed and his sidekick were much more workmanlike, for all Steed’s suggestive banter.


The plot kicks into life when  government minister Sir Clive Todd (Laurence Hardy) is caught in flagrante delicte trying to steal secret documents. Arresting him is no use, since he’s a walking automaton with amnesia and is soon in hospital, where a government shrink (Ian MacNaughton, darkly glowering like a youthful John Laurie) will first try and tease open the man’s mind and later, himself hypnotised, will inject him with a lethal toxin.


But before that, a very welcome palate cleanser. This comes in the form of a scene-stealing Georgina Ward, as Davinia Todd, Sir Clive’s daughter, who was on holiday in the South of France but “got bored” and so decided to come home, so impulsively that she’s still wearing her bikini beneath the coat slung casually over her shoulders. The whole posh, bored, entitled rich girl thing nailed in a thumbnail and almost worth watching the whole episode for.

Georgina Ward in bikini under coat
Georgina Ward sets about stealing the scene

 


But back to the bad guys – a cabal of clever people, an organisation of eggheads called Ransack, appears to be behind Sir Clive’s misdeeds and Mrs Peel is soon undercover within the organisation, where she also succumbs to the same mind-controlling mantra which will send the gang off to a military base to do something that will imperil the realm.

 
And that’s about it, in plot terms at least. The “undercover” aspect of The Avengers formula is beginning to pall, but the idea that convocations of brainy chaps cannot be a good thing is relatively under-explored territory for the series. 


This “don’t trust brains” trope might have arrived from the US alongside the plot’s driver: brainwashing. Though details about the CIA’s MK Ultra experiments – which had been running since 1953 – wouldn’t start coming to light until the 1970s, dark mutterings about what the Soviets might be up to in the same field were already cultural currency (see both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File).


Other things of note: the head of the Ransack organisation, Professor Spencer (Martin Miller) has a faintly German accent, and so is automatically sinister – it’s still only 20 years since the end of the Second World War, after all, in which Steed is meant to have fought.

 
And talking of fighting, there is some very poorly executed rough stuff at the end of the episode, director Peter Graham Scott not quite dynamic enough with his cameras. Though props to whoever decided that Mrs Peel’s showdown with the “Master Mind” (no spoilers) should take place behind a cinema screen, in silhouette. It’s a neat visual touch, and allows the doubles to do what they do best without constantly having to keep their faces turned away from the camera.



 
 
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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 5 – Castle De’ath

John Steed with a sword. Assailant with a gun

 

Three Bond movies had been released and a fourth was just around the corner, when Castle De’ath was broadcast on an autumnal Saturday night in 1965. It’s a mini-me version of Bond, with Scotland standing in for myriad exotic locations, a mini-sub standing in for all the 007 tech and Steed and Peel doing their best to quip for England as the plot takes them north of the border.

 

Things kick off with a pre-Steadycam handheld tour of the castle – every heartbeat of the cameraman registering – which winds up in a dungeon where a man is being tortured on the rack.

 

He’s an agent and soon dead, and the fact that he is taller in death than in life has rung a lot of alarm bells. Enter Steed and Peel, she pretending to be from some government agency specialising in helping old families open their stately piles to the public, he claiming to be a historian by the name of Jock McSteed, researching the McSteed family story.

 

Soon both are ensconced at the castle, where the De’ath family are at odds over what to do. The family is broke – but as is often the case in British drama (as in British life), they’re not so broke that they actually have to go out and work for a living – with dour clan chief Ian (Gordon Jackson) reluctant to open the place up to the great unwashed, while his progressive, gregarious brother Angus (Robert Urquhart) is all for it.

 

Thrown also into the mix, almost as an afterthought, is a subplot about disappearing fish, “one of the mainstays of our economic life”, one of the De’aths warbles helpfully.

 

And between the competing brothers, the precarious fish stocks, some historical nonsense about Black Jamie, the disgraced laird who has been walled up in the east tower for the last 500 years, and a bit of low-level haunting, the plot winds towards a conclusion which, Bond-style, suddenly is all about submarines, ultrasonic waves and a seditious political plot.

 

Diana Rigg in a tartan trouser suit
Looking louche in tartan, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel

It’s a bit overstuffed, in other words. But if it’s John Steed in a kilt you want to see, or Mrs Peel in a tartan trouser suit, plus acres of fine tweed on the rest of the cast, then this is the episode for you. And Urquhart is particularly fine as the more go-getting, populist brother, easily putting Jackson into the shade with acting that’s simply more limber. For all Jackson’s merits, his beautiful voice couldn’t disguise the fact that he isn’t very good at playing against another actor, and in a long career he often came across as a man impatient to say his lines and get on to the next bit.

 

The relationship between Steed and “Mistress Peel”, as laird Ian (Jackson) curtly addresses her, has now settled down. Steed’s Cathy Gale-era lechery has been replaced by something more subtle – he’s still sexually in pursuit but really it’s more about giving it the old college try than expecting any results.

 

As for which one of the two brothers is the baddie – the go-ahead populist or the stuffed shirt – John Lucarotti’s script does a good job of keeping us guessing.

 

And did I mention the amphibious car?

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 4 – Death at Bargain Prices

Mrs Peel at gunpoint

 

Charles Crichton directed one of the best Ealing comedies, 1951’s Lavender Hill Mob, and the highest grossing British comedy of the 1980s, 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda – both crime capers – so is just the man for an episode of The Avengers.

 

And the first shot of the first of five episodes he’d direct announces that “a director” is in the house – it’s a looming, upward-looking shot of a building at dusk, in near-silhouette, ominous as you like.

 

But Crichton wasn’t lauded for his visual style – though he had plenty. What got him the plaudits was his economy (famously praised by Wanda writer/star John Cleese), his ability to say in one shot what other directors would take three, or multiple edits, to achieve.

 

There’s plenty of that on display (or, more to the point, not on display) in Death at Bargain Prices, a Brian Clemens-scripted episode that moves briskly, has time for the odd visual gag, and combines good old-fashioned sneery villains with an up-to-date plot that’s Clemens all over.

 

The building in the opening shot is a department store, and soon we’re inside the deserted place, where a nervously sweating man has soon been felled by an assassin’s bullet.

 

He is an “agent” – I think that’s the first time that word has been used in The Avengers to describe exactly what Steed, Keel, Smith, King (Martin), Gale, Peel, and finally King (Tara) get up to – and Steed and Peel are soon investigating who killed him.

 

But first a bit of banter, which informs us that Mrs Peel is as at home in the realm of thermodynamics as she is in specialist pottery. In this respect she is exactly like Cathy Gale: whatever the subject, she really knows her stuff.

 

Which is a funny way of introducing the next bit of the plot, which inserts Peel into the department store where the dead man was found, as a floor girl bridling at the indignity of it all.

TP McKenna holds Peel and Steed at gunpoint
In case you were wondering if TP McKenna was the bad guy…

The store, right out of British TV sitcom Are You Being Served, is owned by harrumphing, dickie-bowed, wheelchair-using Horatio Kane (André Morell, one-time Dr Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes), but effectively run by Wentworth (TP McKenna) who considers his boss a “foolish sick old man”.

 

Wentworth is of course up to no good, in what is a very British sort of plot turn – it’s never the bosses who are bad, it’s their immediate underlings. “If only the king knew there were such injustice in the land” etc etc.

 

This Richelieu/Louis XIV relationship turns out to be quite a new development. In the short time he has been there, Wentworth has got rid of lots of people who actually know how to do their job, and brought in another lot who patently don’t.

 

Shall I tell you what’s going on at the department store? No, that would ruin the dénouement, which is typical Clemens in its bravado and absurdity.

 

It’s all part of the enjoyment, and though we haven’t quite achieved Peak Avengers, Clemens has clearly now twigged that scoffing at aspects of the show can be part of the fun of it too.

 

Crichton, for his part, works little wonders – there’s a scene in which a villain is swinging back and forth on a rocking chair, and on one of the backswings is grabbed and throttled. Very economical; very Ealing. And there’s a brilliant piece of cross-cutting in the mad-genius-explains-it-all finale in which kidnapped scientist Professor Popplewell (Peter Howell) reveals that…

 

McKenna is a brilliantly oily baddie, as he was in his last Avengers outing (Trojan Horse, in series 3), and his crisp delivery adds to the real sense of pace.

 

But does Mrs Peel get into her leathers? Indeed she does, Clemens vaguely explaining away this unusual garb for a shopworker as part of some move to the sci-fi department, or something.

 

Look out for a very odd outfit worn by Diana Rigg and sending out quite conflicting signals – a waistcoat cut so low that it is serving up her breasts, teamed with a demure white top beneath that goes right up to her neck.

 

And Steed uses his brolly as a knockout weapon in the inevitable big fight finish, the conversion of his English gent’s outfit into something more multifunctional now nearly complete.

 

Lovely stuff.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019